By Kamila Hyat
March 9, 2017
Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem about the strange sadness of spring holds true for Lahore. There is something especially dismal about seeing bright blue skies against which no kite flutters, no contests occur and no distant cheers are heard from kite flyers.
We have already succeeded in raising a generation that does not know how to fly a kite; that does not understand the culture of Basant and all that goes with it. This death of heritage is a disheartening blow to Lahore and to its past. Basant has been celebrated in the city for centuries. The new mantra of ‘safety’ is absurd.
The kites or the young people who fly them do not kill, but it is the chemical-coated string used to fly kites, which ironically enough is imported from our close ally China. Surely we can muster up the will and means to stop the sale of this lethal string. Other cities in the region fly kites without apparently inflicting genocide on their people. We should be able to manage just the same.
But then this brings us to a broader question: do we have any respect for our heritage, our culture, the diversity and beauty of our country. For many, particularly those in the urban centres, the answer would be a resounding no. Children at all tiers in society are growing up without adequate exposure to the classical folk music that so strongly belongs to the soil of their nation. The words of Punjabi, Pashto and all other poets and writers who describe and create a bond between nature and people in indigenous languages, are forgotten. The music we have borrowed from Bollywood, or in the case of the elite from the West, simply fails to replicate that connection. It does not move the heart. Just as kite strings pull at the very core of our beings and lift us high into the skies, traditional music, in all its forms, does much the same.
Yet we are allowing tradition to die. In some cases, we are demolishing it deliberately. The insistence that Urdu be classified as the only national language has been a major factor in creating a strange hierarchy of languages in which, rather oddly, English reigns supreme. ‘English medium’ schools are all the rage, even if the teachers hired can barely speak this alien tongue themselves.
Children are sent to these schools by their parents in the hope that access to this language will brighten their future. As children struggle to master this language’s many oddities, respect for their own language or familiarity with its intense beauty is driven out. Some of the 90 or so languages spoken across the country have begun to fade away. Only a few thousand people speak them today. Soon, they will disappear, along with the languages, and we would have lost an entire chunk of what belonged to us and should have been preserved.
Festivals and traditions, like the Dhamal at Sufi shrines, bind us together as a nation. Basant unites people across class, gender, language and social backgrounds. It is also very important from the province’s economic point of view. For these very reasons, we should be making every possible effort to save this custom. Basant had entered the list of global festivities at the time when it was removed from our lives. We must reclaim what has been lost. The demand must be made more assertively. The propaganda, the talks of ‘safety’ or of an ‘alien’ event belonging to a different region and culture, must be torn down. Such tactics are like walls put up to blind us, to fool us and to keep us away from all that we should be able to embrace freely and with joy.
Other traditions in the country also need to be respected in the same way. The manner in which the Kalash people of the Chitral valleys have been forced to change their faith is extremely disturbing. Lacking power and support, they had no choice in the matter. The number of people who still strictly follow the ancient pagan religion has fallen to around 3,000. The figure used to be at least four times higher at one time. The people in the Chitral valleys lived a lifestyle that had been followed generation after generation. What right did we have to take this away from them? Do we realise that when we did so, we also robbed our country of much of its richness and beauty?
Our diversity is something to be admired and held on to. But instead, we have tried to impose on people a harsh uniformity and turned them into faceless, nameless beings that dwell in a country that struggles to find meaning or identity. Our identity springs not from any one common factor but from our differences and our ability to celebrate them. It lies in accepting varying traditions and tolerating differences in beliefs and lifestyles of others. The Jews who once lived in Karachi have vanished. They have gone to live on the Karachi Street in Tel Aviv. But why did we drive them away? Why have we driven away so many of our minorities? Why are even the most peaceful communities in our society such as the Bohras or the Aga Khanis attacked in sectarian incidents? All this points towards a dying country: a country that has lost the ability to live and to find the heart to embrace all its people.
Prejudices exist everywhere. They are based on differences along the lines of ethnicity, language, beliefs and the colour of people’s skins. We insist that a specific version of Islam is superior. There are people willing to kill for this ideology. But what are we doing to change this warped way of thinking that has resulted in so much being lost?
Why do schoolchildren despise their classmates that belong to other religions? It is a fact that many of them do and children from minority groups – even those who attend the best elite schools in the country – will testify to this. Those who can afford to leave the country do so because of the damage discrimination inflicts on their children who cannot really understand or rationalise it. They cannot provide any justification for the behaviour of their class fellows. Children are essentially logical beings and we mould them into something quite different. Our educational institutions and those who run them play a part in this. So does the media, the mosque and other elements that influence society.
We have to go back to the basics. We need to understand the source from which our identity springs and hold it together so that we do not become people who are lost, who are unable to celebrate, unable to understand, unable to experience life to the full and unwilling to move beyond a certain, narrow scope of thinking. This is the challenge we should be thinking about as the short spring comes and begins to flicker away into a searing summer. It is this spring that we need to reclaim in all its various dimensions.
Kamila Hyat is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.